Obstacles to Reading: Censorship

Should we censor our children’s reading material? Does this preserve their innocence or merely keep them naïve? Is just knowing that something exists enough to damage them?

There was a discussion on Facebook recently about a set of books called the “Spy Dogs” books. Some of the people participating felt that these books were unsuitable for their target audience and would not let their children read them. The reasons given were that the books mentioned guns and drugs. Bear in mind that these are fantasy stories about talking dogs aimed at 9-11 year old boys and the drugs references were a very clear anti-drugs message. Other people felt that the level of violence was low and the anti-drugs message could only be a good thing. Several people cited instances of their reluctant reader boys becoming hooked on reading thanks to these books. So which camp had the most valid points?

Those against allowing children to read the books stated that very sensitive children might be upset by even the small amount of violence. This is indeed a valid point. Some children do scare easily while others are able to cope even with horror aimed at adults without any ill effects. This then may be a case of knowing your child. If you have an exceptionally sensitive child then of course you will want to try and prevent them being distressed by books and films, at least until they are old enough to be able to understand a discussion on things that they find scary without that upsetting them in itself. Does this mean that children who are not unusually sensitive should be allowed to read anything they want? Or indeed that children who are unusually sensitive should not be allowed to do so?

Author Anne Rice states that she is completely opposed to any sort of censorship of reading materials at all. She allowed her son, Christopher, to read (and watch) whatever he wanted. This appears to have done his creativity nothing but good, he is now a successful author in his own right. One argument in favour of this approach is that children will naturally self-censor material that they are not ready for and gravitate towards suitable materials. We can see examples of this all the time. Children are drawn to books about princesses, or dinosaurs, or racing cars, or ponies and few have the patience, or reading ability, to slog through an adult erotica book or a gruesome Stephen King horror. Even if they do have the reading ability (and there is no doubt some do) it would be a rare child that would even be interested in this kind of book.

This brings us back to the question of if knowing about certain things is inherently bad for a child. Does knowing that drugs exist somehow break them? We know that many children are exposed to drugs and their consequences in real life, sometimes in the most horrific of ways, and nobody can argue that this is a bad thing. But is reading a book with a small paragraph containing an anti-drugs message a bad thing? Some say that children are not ready to process certain kinds of knowledge until a certain age. But what age is that? Is it as soon as they can understand the concept? Is it an arbitrary decision from their caregivers as to when they are emotionally ready? Is it when they begin PHSE lessons at school? Is it when they are grown adults and it is already way too late? Perhaps the answer is that it is when they are interested enough in a book that contains these things to actually pick it up and read it. Is knowledge of a thing ever actually a negative in itself?

To answer this question it is useful to think about children who grown up on a farm with livestock. Many feel that these children have an idyllic childhood, growing up in the countryside, surrounded by animals, getting plenty of exercise, eating home-grown food. Indeed there is little denying that it is rare indeed to meet a farmer’s child who is not a well-balanced and at least mostly content individual. However consider the things these children know. They have livestock. They know about mating, they know that sex means babies, they know the difference between live mating and artificial insemination, they know about pregnancy and giving birth, and they know about death. They often know all these things before they even start school. They know about injecting animals with drugs, that they have to be the ones the vet gives, and that the vet does not have the right medicines for people so they should never touch a drug that isn’t from a human doctor.  They are also very likely to know about gun safety, it is not often that a farm does not have a gun. Again they know all these things before they reach school age in the majority of cases.

This shows that merely knowing about these things is not a problem. They have learned about them in a safe way, no risk – or very minimal risk – was undertaken by them in order to gain this knowledge. Indeed they would be in more danger if they did not know these things. You would be surprised by the number of people who will take a dog into a field of cows and calves and expect not to get trampled. The farmer’s six year old son could have told them that was a bad idea. If it is beneficial for children to learn about these things in a safe way then we must ask ourselves – what constitutes a safe way?

Surely there is nothing safer than reading a book. To me any book that gets children reading is a good thing. Children gaining safe knowledge of a negative thing is not robbing them of their innocence, it is simply allowed them to gain knowledge. Preventing children from reading the books they want runs the risk of putting them off reading altogether because the books they are interested in are all on some “banned” list. That is something that would be doing the child a serious disservice. Obviously we must exercise some discretion – nobody would advocate a six year old reading 50 Shades of Grey – but let them read Spy Dogs, and Harry Potter. It won’t turn them into gun toting maniacs or evil sorcerers. All it will do is get them reading – and a love of reading is a true gift.


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